UTMB 2022 – Run to compete becomes hike to complete

Not my THIS IS EASY face. Photo: Maindru

Executive Summary

I can’t blame anyone for not reading my entire report, so these first few paragraphs contain my main thoughts, followed by the full report.

I am happy that I finished UTMB even though I arrived during the last hour, aka golden hour, at 45 hours and 35 minutes. I am somewhat disappointed that I missed my goal of finishing in under 36 hours (while secretly hoping for sub 30 hours), but there is nothing to be done. Many people dream about this race for years. I even heard someone in a recent YouTube video say “This might be the most important race of your life”. If that is true for you, such feelings must be stressful. To make it this far in the process, people must complete difficult qualifying races to gather points, play their luck at the UTMB lottery system, and maintain health and fitness. So, why did I go to UTMB Mt Blanc? Honestly, I went to UTMB Mt. Blanc because I had an automatic entry from the event Oman by UTMB 130km in 2019. I was always primarily interested in Oman, a country I have visited many times and love dearly. But I am nevertheless grateful for the automatic entry to France. But no, this wasn’t the most important race of my life. Not even close. But don’t get me wrong, it was amazing.

So what happened and why was I slower than expected? Well, first of all, this race is really hard and must be respected. I think I could write a whole book about that simple truth – it is really difficult just to make it to the finish line! But I also have some inside information on my own situation: Part of the reason for my troubles can be attributed to a leg injury that appeared this year. But this was not the main reason for being so slow, although it is related…

The number one most important reason for my underperformance is lack of mental confidence and burning desire at the start line. You see, I actually started UTMB Mt. Blanc thinking that I would not finish. I began the event thinking that my leg would most likely force me to withdraw after only a few hours. Therefore I began in a mental state that is not suitable for such a long and difficult event. In fact, at exactly 24 kilometers, I decided to quit the race because my leg and body were suffering after the first long downhill section. Had there been an aid station immediately available, this report would have been about my DNF at UTMB. I am grateful, however, that I changed my mind before arriving at the next aid station at 31 km. At that point, I changed my mindset from “running to compete” to “hiking to complete”. I monitored my leg throughout the event and it never became so painful that I felt I should stop to avoid worse damage. I am confident that I would NOT have ignored excessive pain. For the record, I took zero pain medication before and during the entire event.

The UTMB Mt. Blanc is amazing and crosses amazingly beautiful terrain. But in my opinion, this race is somewhat incompatible for people who live near sea level and lack mountains on which to train. Yes, it is possible for some runners to travel and do training camps in the mountains (and I think elite Finnish runners really must do this before such races!) but this is not an option that is easily available for all, especially those with children / work / financial inflexibility. So, speaking of the future, will I return? Perhaps I will return in the distant future, but only if I either live somewhere with proper mountains, or if am able to implement multiple training camps in before the race.

However, I would go to Oman by UTMB as soon as possible! Unfortunately, Oman by UTMB has not been reinstated.

Full Race Report

At 18:00 on Friday, August 26, 2022, exactly 2,627 runners started the 171 kilometer UTMB race around the glacier encrusted Mt. Blanc covering over 10,000 meters of elevation gain. The race begins in Chamonix, France, crosses through Italy then Switzerland and back to Chamonix.

Downtown Chamonix looking at Mount Blanc

Only 1,789 runners would finish the race, meaning the success rate was about 68%. I think this percentage is slightly higher than some years thanks to the cool (but not cold) running weather for the first 14 hours, although Saturday morning was quite warm until some cloud cover provided relief later in the day. The best runners were done before sunrise on Sunday. I was not to be found among them.

My number at the start line was 1066 (yes, Battle of Hastings) meaning I was rated in the top half of the starters (based on the ITRA scale / performance in other races). Well, I quickly learned that this ranking means nothing when you come from flat southern Finland with its highest hill at 50 meters to the steep Alpen trails that ascend and descend for up to 1,200 meters in one section.

UTMB Mt. Blanc Course Profile – this makes it look easier than it really is
The different races available. I did the most popular event – UTMB

The Start

I arrived at the start line about 16:15 or so on Friday evening and made my way up to about 30 meters or so from the elite air locks. This close proximity to the beginning meant I started the event in a good position and I only had to wait a few seconds to cross the actual start line when the clock chimed. However, once I had claimed a spot to wait, I had to stay there, meaning no more visits to the bathroom (a design flaw). Interestingly, before the start, it rained a bit and I even had to pull out my jacket to cover my head for a few minutes. But that was it for the rain for the next few days.

The race was on. We bolted out of the start line quite quickly and I managed to stay with the flow of the herd for the first 7 kilometers until the first aid station at Les Houches. I knew the pace would be fast at the beginning, but I actually expected it to be worse.

Les Houches (7 km)

In Les Houches I filled my water bottles and began the long climb up Le Delevret passing many people along the way. Climbing up hills is one of my few strengths and I made considerable progress at this point, but after reaching the peak, it was time to head down. Down? Guess what one of my weaknesses is? That’s right, descending long steep hills at speed. Since this was the first long descent, however, I decided to try and run fast with the people around me. Nevertheless, my downhill weakness soon became obvious and I would guess that at least fifty runners passed me in the next 10 minutes. Well, I finally made it down and arrived in St. Gervais at 21 kilometers with quads that were already suffering – an ill omen for the future.

St. Gervais (21 km) and Les Contamines (31 km) and beyond

Things “went south” almost immediately after St. Gervais and I had to do a mix of running and walking for many kilometers before the next aid station in Les Contamines at 31 kilometers. One of the reasons for this decline in my performance was the heat and humid in the French valley even late in the evening. This combination of heat and humidity with blown quads led to some nausea and I had to force myself to focus my eyes forward to avoid vomiting. At about 24.5 kilometers, I distinctly remember feeling some pain in my left shin – oh no! At that moment, the fusion of my arch fear (shin pain) with nausea and blown quads resulted in a decision to quit and accept my DNF. It was one of the lowest moments I have ever experienced in a race, and I had covered less than 25 kilometers. Luckily, mixing walking and running over the next 5 kilometers help my body find its balance and and my mind regain the desire to continue. But when I saw someone vomit just in front of me at the Les Contamines aid station, I thought I might do the same and then quit. I also heard another runner say “I drop. I drop” meaning they wanted to quit.

Beyond Les Contamines, I have only scattered memories from the dark: a 1,000+ meter ascent that never seemed to end. A long descent that felt even longer to my legs. At some point in the darkness, I twisted my foot in a rain gutter, but not so badly that it caused any lasting pain.

I ate delicious soup somewhere along the way – was it Les Chapieux? I remember wanting to quit again but thinking I should wait until Courmayeur to pull the plug.

Courmayeur, Italy (80 km)

At some point after 9.00 in the morning on Saturday – rather later than expected – I arrived in Courmayeur to the familiar voice of my friend Pasi Flinkman: “Looking great, Jeremy”. Ah, Pasi, if only I felt that way.

I grabbed my drop bag and headed indoors.

Pasi was the best crew I could ask for: upbeat, refreshed, and diligent in helping me get the food I needed to refuel immediately and the supplies I needed for the next section. It was impossible not to smile with so much positive energy. And so after soup, coke, candy and more, I said goodbye and continued on into the heat of the morning.

I was soon to break down again. At this point I had stopped running to compete and was mostly hiking to complete.

Refuge Bertone (85 km)

The climb from Courmayeur to Refuge Bertone was straightforward and short on paper, less than 5km, but extremely difficult in reality. The sun was out now and temperatures climbed quickly. No clouds were around to offer relief. Perhaps most problematic for me, however, was that a few sections of this trail offered little to no protection from the pulsing sun. I began to lose energy and then began to feel nauseated again. I arrived at the refuge unable to eat and uninterested in drinking so I sat down on a bench in the shade. After a few minutes I started to tremble due to chills in my body – which did not make sense because I had just overheated. But I guess that is how some heat problems advance. Your body over heats and then begins to shut down. Experiencing this strange cooling sensation, I moved from the shade to the direct sun to warm myself. A medic looked at me and I waved him over. “I am feeling cold and nauseated”. Medic: “Please come with me”. The medic took me to an old wooden building that was serving as a makeshift infirmary for runners. He placed me on a bed and raised my feet well above the level of my head. The attentive medic next covered me in a thick wool blanket and told me to rest. He had other responsibilities. Some time later I began to tremble again while resting, which startled a nurse who ran out to find the medic. Upon returning, he took my temperature, pulse, blood pressure, and blood sugar (finger prick). In the end, he said I was okay and that I should eat, drink, and rest. I think I spent 30-45 minutes there and then continued on to the highest point of the whole race – Grand Col Ferret and over to La Fouly. I never actually slept, but the rest was rejuvenating.

Ode to the Great Daniel of Spain. Arnouvaz, Italy (98 km)

At some point between my time in hospice (so it felt) and the peak of Grand Col Ferret, I met up with my Spanish/Swiss friend Daniel who also lives in Finland. We stayed together for a short time on the course but at some point Daniel went ahead. A few hours later, I think it was in the Arnouvaz aid station, I came across a miserable looking Daniel who told me he had decided to quit (DNF). Well that didn’t sound right to me. In fact, I thought he was running better than myself. Luckily for both of us, Daniel somehow gathered his strength, rallied and asked if he could continue on with me. Of course, I said, but first I needed to rest and refuel (and have one of many unfortunate diarrhea explosions).

And so, after Arnouvaz, Italy at 98 km, Daniel and I stayed together through thick and thin, sunshine and heat, moonlight and cold, nausea and even some moments of astonishing clarity and joy, until nearly the very end of the race some 70 kilometers later. In the end, Daniel had to speed up to make his evening flight and so he arrived at the finish line 45 minutes ahead of me.

I must say that I do not normally like to run with other people during long solo events like this. I prefer to go my own pace. I know that each person will experience highs and lows that are impossible to synchronize. Thus, it’s often best to go alone when possible. Also, I don’t like people breathing down my neck on the trail. Nevertheless, Daniel and I helped each other through many difficulties for many, many hours. At this point I will come out and admit that Daniel helped me more than I helped him. Well done, Daniel.

From La Fouly (112 km) to Champex-Lac (126 km)

I don’t remember much from La Fouly to Trient except that Daniel had some friends say hello in La Fouly, and then we soon powered up our headlamps for the second night. I do recall that we both had a nap at Champex-Lac on soft mattresses with wool blankets. Again, the rest was nice but I didn’t actually sleep. Daniel’s crew member, Matt from Finland (by way of New Zealand), was also there and kindly monitored our gear while we rested. When I rose from my rest in Champex-Lac, my shin was hurting a bit and my body a lot. I actually said out loud that I don’t know if I should continue. I felt detached and completely out of energy. Luckily, a bit of food and drink changed those feelings to something more positive and Daniel and I continued on. I knew that if we could just leave Champex-Lac, we would have over a 90% chance of arriving at the finish line. I read that statistic somewhere.

Trient (142 km)

The long descent to Trient was grueling. The sun was rising for the second time at UTMB, and my feet were falling apart. I had used Armaskin socks (I am an ambassador for them) for the first half of the race. But after airing my feet out, I put on a different pair of socks that turned out to be less forgiving of blisters. And so in Trient, I sought out a medic who popped a few blisters for me. At this point my shin was also starting to hurt a bit more, so I asked for a stabilizing bandage around the ankle and shin. The medic obliged and used some fancy tape that helped my leg feel better. Daniel, the lucky guy, took a short rest and got a massage. This was my third and final rest on a bed with a wool blanket – while the medic worked on my feet- but again, I didn’t sleep.

To Vallorcine (153 km) and Oh Sh*t.

During this last half of UTMB, Daniel and I had steadily remained about two hours ahead of the cutoff times at each aid station, but something happened on our way to Vallorcine. Somehow we had slowed down considerably, or the next cutoff was more difficult than the previous. Whatever the reason, when we heard from some Romanian runners that we had over 3 kilometers before the aid station and limited time, we had an ‘oh shit’ moment and realized that we might not actually make it in time, and thus be forced to quit. And so upon hearing this news, we threw caution to the wind, demanded silence from our sore quads, and we ran as fast as we could downhill. Along the way, a few other runners sensed the panic in our plight and followed suit. Eventually we arrived in Vallorcine with less than 30 minutes before the cutoff after seemingly super human effort. Interestingly, a runner from Argentina proclaimed “you guys saved my race” – meaning he had followed us as we sprinted down the mountain and he otherwise would have missed the cutoff.

By the way, I have not had to worry about cutoffs in races since way back in 2015 as a new ultra runner in the Canadian Death Race, so this long forgotten worry was exceptionally unwelcome. I was feeling like, as the French say, les incompetents.

I have forgotten one crucial piece of information about our journey downhill before Vallorcine. At about 1 kilometer up from the aid station, we saw my friend and host Stephen Turner waving at us and shouting at us about our lack of time and that we best get our asses in gear (he didn’t say those words, but that is what he meant). Stephen was a welcome sight at such a late stage in this race and I was grateful to see him. I wondered if I should ask about our dinner plans a few hours later… is that still on even though I was supposed to be done hours ago? 🙂 It was!

Stephen followed us down to the aid station and yelled obscenities at me to try and encourage me. Ok not really, he actually offered a great deal of important advice about how to finish UTMB with the small amount of time we had left. See the video from Stephen of our arrival at the aid station.

Arrival at Vallorince at 153km after a speedy descent on blown quads. Video: Stephen Turner

I made quick work of the aid station and continued on Col Des Montets. Daniel stayed a few minutes longer but then later caught up (and passed me). And so there I was, at the back of the pack, in the heat of the day, running out of time to complete the UTMB 2022. The winners had finished early Saturday afternoon, and here I was late Sunday morning.

Vallorince aid station. Photo: Stephen Turner

Vallorince to the End

After a quick stop at Col Des Montets for some water and a bib number check, I began the last climb to Tete aux Vents, the final peak before the long descent to Chamonix and bed (and dinner with the Turners!). The heat was on, both in the sky and in my legs. Although the trail was narrow and rocky, I must have passed 50 people on the way up, at least 50 more along the ridge and the top and at least another 50 on the way down. At this point in the race I accepted the pain and ran regardless. I wish I could have adopted this mindset about 30 hours ago. Most of the runners were polite and gave way, though a few seemed irritated at my rebound and some seemed reluctant to allow me to pass. I forgive them because at this point we were all a bunch of zombies.

Photos in the following gallery from Stephen Turner. The last climb.

To the Finish Line

From the top at Tete aux Vents, we had a seemingly endless trail (of only 3 km) to the last aid station at UTMB, La Flegere. At this aid station I drank water and coke, refilled my bottles, sat down for 2-3 minutes to cool off, and then turned my gaze to destiny awaiting in the valley below. In truth, the first few hundred meters from that last aid station consisted of a steep gradient and required deceleration with poles. Luckily my legs soon found their groove again and I basically ran the rest of the way to the finish line.

Perhaps the most memorable feeling in all of UTMB, for both spectator and participant, is the few final minutes of the race during which runners cross through a maze of city streets in Chamonix. These streets are lined with people cheering and wishing the runners all the best – even the slowest of us. The following video immortalizes my last 4 minutes on the course. I must admit that I was feeling a bit dizzy and I was hoping to avoid collapse or worse (vomit). All clear!

Last 4 minutes of UTMB 2022. Video: Stephen Turner

The End

I am truly grateful for this experience, though I was unprepared mentally. Or should I rather say, uncommitted mentally due to the uncertainty of my leg. In reality, I am surprised that I finished this event with the mindset I had at the start. I encourage all runners to prepare and commit themselves better than I did, both physically but especially mentally.

Here is a slide show of some photos near the finish line. Photos from Stephen Turner.

My Thoughts about My Participation in UTMB

Here are some notes I made on my journey home from the race. These issues came to my mind after I thought to myself: “I swim in a sea of contradictions. I both enjoyed UTMB and suffered during it.” The following questions and answers represent a sort of mental debate in which I participated almost unwillingly.

  1. Question: Why should I do races in the mountains when it is nearly impossible to train for them where I live? Response: because they are beautiful, majestic and worthy of one’s eyes. The glaciers will be gone in a generation or two.
  2. Question: Why join events with massive elevation changes when I can’t prepare well where I live? Response: Well, some uphill training is possible. However, running downhill for 30 seconds doesn’t really give the needed adaptation. How can I solve this? Do I want to solve this? Maybe yes maybe no.
  3. Question: Why join an event like UTMB when it has become so popular and seemingly corporate in nature, especially now with Ironman? Response: I choose to respect what they are doing for people. UTMB provides a way to see remote mountains with support along the way. UTMB is also famous for fostering an unforgettable atmosphere and energy. Even if you can’t run it, I recommend visiting the area during the race for the positive vibe.
  4. Why race at altitude when I can’t prepare for it? Response: … I don’t have a response for this. I am at a loss. At least it wasn’t as high as some races in the Rockies.

Mom, I paid 50$ or so for these race photos for you.

Gear

I used Altra Olympus 5 during the entire event. I used Armaskin socks for the first half of the race and they worked very well. #Armaskin

My Garmin Fenix 6 Sapphire watch stopped after 30 hours or so although it was supposed to last 46 hours. I think the fact that I loaded the UTMB gpx file and was ‘doing’ the course cause the battery to burn quickly.

Kudos

Stephen and Margot – best hosts ever
Daniel Fernandez, the best co-pilot at UTMB. Photo: Stephen Turner

Pasi Flinkman – see photo below

Pasi Flinkman is the man.

Aftermath

Swollen foot and messed up little toe (as always).
Waiting for the plane in Geneva
Stephen’s wooden friends

Good bye!

3 thoughts on “UTMB 2022 – Run to compete becomes hike to complete

Add yours

  1. An epic tale! Congrats on your finish even if it wasn’t what you planned. I was listening to a podcast from another flatlander who did CCC this year. They spent a lot of time training on a stair or step climber in the gym, working up to 2hr sessions to mimic the biggest climbs. Also a lot of steps downs off a box for the downhills. Seemed to work well for them!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh my goodness Jeremy! My heart is bursting with pride!!! I can’t believe what you put yourself through to achieve a goal. I need some lessons from you! Thanks for the $50 pics–I treasure them and I’m sure you and your family will. Just please rest for a month or two, for me, okay!

    Like

  3. Dude! Amazing job. I would like to get to the point of not having to worry about cut off times someday. Though it’s kind of like my same desire to learn to play the piano… wouldn’t that be nice, followed by turning on the TV or firing up the computer.

    I am very impressed, a little jealous, but mostly just in awe.

    Like

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